It was six years ago, when I was 46 years old, and I was lying in bed and feeling terrible on an island in the Hebrides. I’d come away on holiday to a place I’d always yearned to go to and things weren’t going well. I was there with the man I was going out with (and subsequently married but that’s another story) and we were uncomfortable with each other. We hadn’t known each other long enough to be holed up in a too-small, too-isolated ‘love nest’, far away from other people.
It had been my idea, my dream. I’d always wanted to head off to the Isle of Harris with a rugged bloke and be entwined for days on end. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe my idea of intimacy was someone else’s idea of hell. And, anyway, he wasn’t in love with me then. He was too wrapped up in a past relationship to really be available to love anyone – not me and certainly not himself either. But I have never been one to let reality ruin my fantasy. Until then.
As I lay there wondering why this man I thought I was in love with plainly wasn’t in love with me, I started thinking about all the times I’d messed up my life. There were so many. I’d been a terrible girlfriend, a messed-up mother, a loose cannon, a wayward lover, a drunk. I had, in the past, sunk way too much and too far and done things I felt deeply ashamed of. I’d hurt and humiliated people I cared for. It didn’t feel good But, more than that, I realised I’d lost all sense of self.
In a vain desire to have some sort of ‘standing’ in the world, I’d sold my soul to journalism. I didn’t even know what integrity was any more. I’d argue on both sides if the money was right. I felt that I’d worked so hard for so long to be successful that I couldn’t possibly turn my back on the industry I’d strived so hard to belong to. I’d become obsessed with money. It had taken me over in a way that was out of kilter.
It wasn’t that I was poor. I’d inherited money from my father but my ex and I (the father of three of my four children) had frittered a worrying amount of it away on such fripperies as outdoor furnishings and club class tickets to exotic locations. So I didn’t seem able to turn paid work down. I was obsessed with the fact we’d run out of money so I found myself saying yes to every job I was offered. I had no filter. I’d write anything for anyone. I wrote about my intimate relationship with my then-partner. I wrote about my family, my dead-dad, my friends, people I knew, people I barely knew. Nothing was off-limits. I wrote article after article and the subjects begun to get increasingly personal Things came to a head when I was asked to write about my children.
At first, I saw nothing wrong with a quickly penned piece on how tricky it was bringing up my much-loved, much-wanted daughter. I didn’t think I’d written anything terrible. I’d just pointed out how much nosier and demanding she was compared to her three older brothers. My first inkling that anything was amiss was when various radio stations and daytime television stations called asking me to go on air and talk about my ‘controversial’ piece. Then the internet went mad and I became the scourge of parents, outraged at my comments. It was a bruising experience and it left me bewildered. Had I really said something that bad?
From then on, everything got worse. I couldn’t write anything without hoards of online trolls making my life miserable. In the end, I came off all social media but I could see that life, or at least my life as a journalist, had to change.
So there I was, in the Hebrides, moaning on about how sick I was of all of it when my boyfriend said, rather nonchalantly, ‘Well, why don’t you do something else then?’. Something else? Jesus. The thought had never occurred to me.
‘I dunno. You like finding out what makes people tick. You’re interested in people. I think you’d be a good therapist.’
I sat there feeling somewhat stunned. Then I started googling courses on becoming a psychotherapist and, it seemed, I could do a six-week introductory course and see how it felt. That was six years ago. The six weeks went to a year, then another two years then…somehow four years passed and there I was, a fully paid-up, qualified counsellor. I couldn’t believe I’d done it.
In many ways, I’d turned my life around beyond recognition. Instead of going out I’d studied. I’d stopped partying, misbehaving, being an arsehole. I spent days and nights on end reading and learning and scrutinising myself and crying. Lot and lots of crying. I went in to therapy. I started therapising other people. I felt like an imposter – to myself, to them, to everyone. The first client I had was when I was working at a Youth Counselling Centre. She was 18, had dyed blue hair, many piercings and studs and was covered in tattoos. She was in the waiting room glowering at me as soon as she saw me. Her rather nervous mother kept prodding her as I asked Helen (not her real name) to come with me. “No,” she said scowling. In that moment, I almost turned and ran. What on earth was I doing there?
My course hadn’t prepared me for this. But I stood my ground, told her she was coming with me and somewhat frog marched her up the stairs. As we sat silently staring at each other, I noticed she had a picture of a rat on her mobile phone. ‘Is that your pet?’, I asked her. Suddenly this angry hurt teenager started smiling. It was the beginning of a very fruitful relationship. I have learned so many things; teenagers are difficult to counsel but, once they trust you, they really are magnificent in their ability to grasp therapy and run with it.
Adults take more time. We’re far more set in our ways and we’re scared. Therapy is work. It takes a form of bravery to walk through the door. It has to involve trust and interest and something between the therapist and client that has some ‘juice’. People ask me if I get bored. How could I? I’ve heard so many different stories from so many different lives.
I now know how to shoplift and how to remove security tags. I know where to buy any sort of drugs from. I’ve seen the scars from those who self-harm and I always consider that an honour. I’ve been to the backstreets of Faro via Google Earth where one of my youngest and saddest clients grew up. She was a little homesick girl who just wanted to show me the life she had before her mother died and her father came to the UK for work.
I’ve met some truly fascinating people. I’ve met people who believe they have done terrible things. Sometimes I’m not sure if I am friend or foe. Therapy goes like that. I look like I’m listening. I am listening. But I’m also thinking – what’s going on here? Who am I for this person? I notice the minute – a change of dress, the body language, the defenses, the endless defenses we all use to avoid the things we don’t like about ourselves.
I’ve seen jealous women clad in green and scarlet women wearing scarlet yet neither of them realising it. I’ve had a man who couldn’t grieve develop huge styes in his eyes without connecting it to his inability to cry. I have seen people in desperate pain. But I’ve also seen people heal. I’ve been wept on, shouted at, flirted with, denigrated, exalted, insulted, complemented. And I just sit there. I sit there because that’s my job. And I love it. It feels serious and proper and kind and caring. I delve into places I’d been terrified of going to before I chose this work. I learn as much, if not more, from my clients as they do from me. I still do. Every time I meet a client I feel a sense of wonderment. ‘What journey will we go on here?’, I think.
It will never stop, this learning. That’s what I love about it. There’s so much to know. When I tell people – people I used to know – that I’m now a therapist, they look momentarily confused. Most struggle to believe that I would give up a seemingly successful public career for something that sounds so different. But I point out that they are not that far removed.
Therapists are interested in people, in why people do the things they do. We’re interested in theory and practice and relationships and the past and the here and now. What might appear to some to be quite simple – I sit in this chair, you sit in that chair, is far more complicated than that. As my clients tell me their stories, I am working hard concentrating, filtering, alighting like a butterfly on one piece of information, gathering a bit of pollen from it, then flitting off to the next bit.
It’s a quieter life held in some sort of suspended animation as myself and my clients sit together. No one but us knows what goes on in that room and, sometimes, we’re probably not all that sure what actually has gone on. There is something mysterious about the therapeutic relationship that leaves people baffled and intrigued.
People always ask if I enjoy what I do. I always answer that enjoy isn’t the word. I am sort of completed by it – by doing good, by being intellectually stimulated, by meeting so many different people letting me in to their complicated but fascinating lives. I’ve met a more full range of people than I ever did as a journalist and now I am not forced by put-upon editors to find a headline.
I am strangely changed and yet unchanged – as Winnicott said, the worse breakdown we fear is the breakdown that has already happened. I feared losing my status, my income, my social standing but really that fear was about getting to know myself and that’s been around for a long time. I draw back the veil every day by an infinitesimal amount.
And, of course, dear reader, I did marry the man from the Hebrides. But it would never have happened if I hadn’t chosen a different path for my life. Becoming a therapist has helped me see relationships in such a different light. I am far more tolerant, kinder, more giving and more forgiving than I ever thought I would be. There is some sort of innate blind trust that enters the room when a client walks in.
It’s a form of love. You take a leap. You trust the leap. It can all go a bit wobbly but if you do the work, feel the trust, love and support, you get there in the end. I could have walked away from this, from him, from my training. I could have jacked it all in and there were many times I nearly did.
But I am so glad I didn’t.